By Dr Christiane Oedekoven
I am currently working as a postdoc in Chris Bird’s Episodic Memory Lab after doing my first postdoc in Tuebingen, in a more clinical setting. Of course, every lab is different, and obviously not everyone has the same experience, but the issues we discussed in a DREADED seminar last term might be helpful if you are considering to move on to a postdoctoral position.
- Interesting job
Let’s face it, ideally a postdoc involves researching a topic you find interesting, maybe something you have started working on during your PhD, maybe a completely different field. In my career I carried on to research episodic memory in older adults with memory problems, which I find fascinating. To have a job that is challenging and motivating and involves learning something new is more than a lot of other jobs have to offer.
- More independence
In comparison to your PhD, your relationship to your PI is on more equal terms. This is especially true if you come with your own funding (if you happen to be one of the mythical creatures who manage to get a postdoctoral fellowship, for instance). But even working on a project on your PI’s grant comes with more independence than a PhD. A postdoc is a job and not a studentship anymore. Should the job not meet your expectations, you can leave without worrying about the effect on your thesis.
Working in academia often allows the possibility of carrying out large portions of your work anywhere you want to and moreover often comes with the absolute plus of flexible working hours. Instead of working a regular 9-5 job, it allows for personal preferences, such as starting later and working later or allows for working around family life. While this combination is potentially dangerous (see 10), it also holds the possibility of great freedom.
- Relaxed work atmosphere
Working at a university is so much more relaxed than many other offices. For me it was probably the combined experience of coming to the UK (more relaxed than Germany) and having worked in a clinical environment before coming here to Sussex. I find the atmosphere really friendly and not as competitive as other places and the hierarchies are less steep than in clinical contexts. Plus the dress code is quite casual J
- Job uncertainty
This is THE most obvious downside of being a postdoctoral researcher. Across the university, this is the topic research staff is most worried about. Having a postdoctoral position most likely means there is a fixed end to the project/contract you are working on, and a contract usually lasts 1-3 years.
- Future plans
You should ask yourself every so often: do I want to stay in academia? According to a Vitae survey 78% of research staff would like to stay in academia, but probably all of us have thought about leaving research before. What made me think really hard about the future in academia was a graph by the Royal Society in their publication “The Scientific Century”, which shows the number of people staying in academia based on recent data from HEFCE and HESA. Of everyone doing a PhD, only 0.45% eventually become professors. Is that a bleak prospect? Depends how you see it. But it is definitely worth considering how else you might be able to put your experience to work (see 9).
Compared to your friends who have jobs in the “real world” being a postdoc does not come with the big money. Obviously it is an improvement to whatever you earned during your time as a PhD and in my opinion number 1 and 3 outweigh this downside.
Doing a postdoc often involves moving for a job that fits your profile and/or your preferences. Different countries treat postdocs differently. To my knowledge a postdoc in the USA is often seen more as an extension of grad school and you are more likely treated as a student. In comparison it is definitely seen as a job in Europe. Here in Sussex we have come quite a long way in being recognized as research staff rather than more mature PhD students.
- Experience and skills from your PhD
While you might wonder which “real world” job you might like to do, the argument might come up that you have no previous experience with it. Think again. Often skills learned during your PhD transfer well into other environments. For example during my PhD I used to do neuropsychological testing in a memory clinic with the idea I might recruit patients there. While the recruitment idea failed, I learned a lot about working with patients and memory tests and this was very valuable for every job I had since, academic as well as clinical.
I guess this is not particular to postdoc contracts, but there are no official working hours in our contract, but rather a phrasing along the lines “until the work is done”. The work is never done. There is always another paper to write, another analysis to do… If you would like to have a job that never comes home with you, you should reconsider. But of course this also depends on you, how much you let it intrude. While your job is great fun (see 1), having a social life outside of work might be, too.